Saturday, January 31, 2009

Charles H. Schneer (1920-2009): An Appreciation

Mention the name Charles H. Schneer and blank stares and head scratching will surely follow. But film buffs of a certain age will instantly recognize outlandish images of a strange creature called a Ymir, a giant octopus tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge, a cloven-hoof Cyclops roasting men alive on a spit, or sword-wielding skeletons battling Jason and the Argonauts.

Schneer, who died Jan. 21 in Boca Raton, FL, produced many of the great fantasy films of the 1950s and enjoyed a career with Columbia Pictures that lasted three decades. He is best remembered for his collaborations with special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion animated creatures were a source of wonder for wide-eyed children at Saturday matinees during the height of the Cold War. That was a time when going to the movies meant more than an afternoon of entertainment; films were a great escape from troubled times at the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Indeed, the plots of Mr. Schneer’s films often hinged on nuclear mischief or science gone awry. This led often enough to radioactive monsters grown to gargantuan size. An early entry in this genre was Schneer's 1955 production of Harryhausen’s overgrown octopus epic, It Came From Beneath the Sea, featuring a beastie with only five tentacles, which were cheaper and faster to animate than the traditional eight appendages. A sage man with a production dollar, Schneer predicted correctly that no one would notice. With three fewer tentacles to animate, Harryhausen brought the picture in on time and under budget.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers appeared the following year with incredible scenes of destruction filmed in miniature. There's an almost gleeful recklessness on display as Harryahusen's flying saucers level the Washington Monument, crash into the Supreme Court and collide with the Capitol Dome (a scene that brought whooping cheers from the audience when I caught the film on a revival screening 20 years after its original release).

These early efforts launched a long and fruitful collaboration with Harryhausen, whose fascination with giant monsters had begun in 1933 when he saw King Kong on its original release. Together the men made a dozen fantasy pictures, including a trio of Sinbad adventures, the best of which has to be The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a film filled with non-stop wonders: the giant Cyclops, a fire-breathing dragon, the mythical roc (a bird the size of a jumbo-jet) and the pièce de résistance, Sinbad dueling with a skeleton. Bernard Hermann composed the lush soundtrack for strings and woodwinds.

Such was Schneer’s facility with frugal film production that he was able to shoot the Sinbad pictures in Spain and Malta, hire top talent like Hermann (who was Alfred Hitchcock's favorite composer) and shoot in expensive Technicolor, while Harryhausen would labor for a year or more in his small studio, bringing his puppet models to life one frame at a time. The laborious process of stop-motion animation often meant that Schneer could produce other films while Harryhausen completed his special effects. Perhaps the most notable of Schneer’s non-Harryhausen production credits was Hellcats of the Navy (1957), the only picture in which future president Ronald Reagan and his second wife Nancy Davis appear together.

An excerpt from the climactic battle in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad:

The final Schneer-Harryhausen production, Clash of the Titans (1980), enjoyed less than titanic box office, despite the presence of stars such as Laurence Olivier. Soon after, computer-generated special effects were capable of engineering photo-realistic monsters, rendering Harryhausen’s techniques all but obsolete and effectively forcing the duo’s retirement. Fans, myself included, would argue that stop-motion animation imparts a charm and sense of magic that CGI beasties can only approximate. The very artificiality of Harryhausen’s creations, blending almost seamlessly with live action, is what makes these films so effective even half a century later.

While Harryhausen’s name is most closely associated with these magical movies (the team’s mutual favorite was the 1963 production of Jason and the Argonauts), the films themselves might never have been made without Schneer’s sharp eye for affordable locations and his negotiating skills. In those pre-Star Wars days, studio executives did not always see the financial potential in fantasy flicks featuring mythical creatures and mostly unknown B-movie actors. Harryhausen needed an advocate and found a formidable ally in Schneer, whose business acumen and hands-on production style allowed the special effects wizard to work in peace. Their professional relationship was a true example of collaboration between artist and businessman, each drawing on the strengths of the other to produce a remarkable body of cinematic work.

Their films brought great joy and endless wonders to my childhood. And now, on DVD, their immortal pictures continue to invoke this magic for my children today.

Schneer was 88.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Guilty Pleasures

“Learn to see the ‘worst’ films; they are sometimes sublime.”
— Ado Kyrou, Surrealisme au Cinema

By Steve Evans
What does bad cinema share in common with strawberries covered in Belgian chocolate? Beer-simmered bratwursts smoked over hickory and served with peppers and onions? Tortilla chips slathered with melted Monterey jack, jalapeño peppers and spoonfuls of extra-hot salsa?

Hell, I dunno. But I do enjoy a guilty pleasure now and again. Here's a short list of movies that probably aren’t good for you, but taste mighty fine:

The Horror of Party Beach (1964), directed by the incomparable Del Tenney, was billed as “the first horror monster musical.” I s’pose that counts as a recommendation, although it’s basically a retread of the Creature From the Black Lagoon on a wee budget. We do get good value for our entertainment dollars: Babes in bikinis go-go dancing. Bikers. Beaches. Beefcake brawling over Cheesecake. Radioactive sea monsters with their mouths stuffed full of bratwursts (see it for yourself, then believe). And the great surf-rock band The Del Aires (from Connecticut!) perform 6 rockin’ tunes, including the Zombie Stomp. A maid named Eullabelle saves the day. Verily, friends, this is one of the greatest movies ever made. Filmed entertainment just doesn’t come any better.

Point Break (1991) delivers terrific action set pieces and the greatest football game ever filmed at night on a beach, which almost compensates for the fact that this is one of the dumbest movies in cinema history. A pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves stars as the improbably named Johnny Utah, an FBI agent who gets so angry in the second act that he leaps from a plane -- without a parachute -- to pursue a bad guy getting away. Now that's square-jawed determination. Long before that ludicrous moment, we get some great surfing sequences, a bank robbery with crooks wearing rubber masks with the likenesses of ex-presidents, a rare opportunity to hear Arthur Lee's psychedelic band Love on a movie soundtrack, and a shoot-out involving drug dealers and a lawnmower. Patrick Swayze did his own skydiving stunts, but Gary Busey steals the film as a smart-ass Fed who likes Calvin & Hobbes and meatball sandwiches. Look fast for Anthony Keidis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as a surfer dude. Whoa.

Jaws: The Revenge (1987) is a ridiculous-looking giant, rubber shark with frequently visible control cables dangling from its belly. Michael Caine appears in a supporting role, looking decidedly embarrassed to be in this one. He has this expression in several scenes as though he just farted loudly and is hoping no one will immediately blame him for the crime. While Caine was filming this flick in the Bahamas, he passed on an opportunity to attend the Academy Awards in 1987, when he would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters. Later, a reporter asked Caine if he realized how awful Jaws: The Revenge would turn out to be. Caine admitted candidly: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Mesa of Lost Women (1953). Jackie "Uncle Fester" Coogan plays a mad scientist (is there any other kind?) who wants to infuse beautiful women with the strength and agility of tarantulas. WTF?! Several ding-dongs land a plane on his mesa and start snooping around. Shot on a budget of about three dollars, the picture features the saddest-looking giant spider puppet yet committed to film. It was also the sad beginning of a long career descent for Coogan, a former child actor from the silent era whose mother and stepfather squandered his fortune. A millionaire at 7, Coogan was broke by the time he turned 18. That's more tragic than anything in this inept picture.

If you can endure the annoying-as-hell flamenco guitar and piano soundtrack that plays incessantly throughout this picture (and was also used by Ed Wood in his hypnotically awful Jail Bait), then the first round of beers is on me. Trivia note: the composer for this mind-numbing soundtrack was a young musician named Hoyt Curtin, who would go on to compose the familiar “Scooby Doo” jingle for the popular cartoon. Aren’t you glad you know that, now?

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) was a “blind-buy” I purchased for five dollars on the strength of the title alone. Seriously. Rare indeed is a film that lives up to its title: There are bee girls. They invade. Some of them prance around nekkid. Others hang out in a laboratory and say pseudo-scientific things while holding their instruments incorrectly and frequently upside-down. Bee girls will do that, don't you know? I got my money’s worth.

I also enjoy everything written or directed by Ed Wood, especially Bride of the Monster (1955) and The Violent Years (1956), which he wrote but did not direct. In the latter, a gang of delinquent girls runs amok. They break into their school and shove desks around, hold up gas stations and, in the scene that will have you staring in disbelief, they kidnap a guy in the park, drag him out of his car and into the woods, where they “have their way” with him, despite his strenuous objections. This sort of thing never happens to me.

I have no use for the jackals of bourgeois sensibility who would look upon these delightful movies with a disdainful eye. Those who criticize mindless fluff are mental lightweights themselves – too insecure to realize what they’re missing, much less to open their minds long enough such that they might experience some serious fun.

Pass the popcorn.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscar Winners 2009: Steve Predicts

Oscar nominations were announced this morning to little fanfare and few surprises. As it happens, 2008 was a ho-hum year for cinema, punctuated by predictable hits.

David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button leads the Oscar pack with 13 nods, including best picture and director. You heard it here first: the film will win both top prizes.

Why? There is no serious competition this year for Benji Button, an ambitious narrative about a man who ages backwards, with A-list talent and a maverick director who's overdue for one of those little golden men. Plus, Oscar politics are typically transparent for anyone who knows a little academy history. This year is no exception. Edgy material has to make do with the honor of a nomination; the top award invariably goes to the picture made in the grand, old Hollywood style: big production, sharp acting and superb craftsmanship, but very little in the way of a “message,” especially anything controversial. Sure, Best Picture winner Crash (2006) was a film about the evils of racism, but no one publicly argues with that. It’s just another film that takes a stand without taking any chances. Such are the choices before us this year.

Besides Button, these films are up for Best Picture:

Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon got a chilly reception at the box office, although this adaptation of the stage play, itself a recounting of David Frost’s historically significant 1977 interviews with a disgraced president, was met with almost-universal critical favor. Still, who thinks of Nixon in connection with a great movie? All the President’s Men (1976) centered around the 37th president, but we never actually had to look at him. There's another obstacle working against this fim: Howard won a directing Oscar eight years ago for A Beautiful Mind. Two in his lifetime seems a bit of a stretch for this former child actor and inconsistent directing talent, when you consider the appalling number of brilliant directors who never received an Oscar for their work. Stanley Kubrick, anyone?

Milk, directed by Gus van Sant, is the biopic of Harvey Milk, a gay San Francisco city councilman who was murdered by a political rival. Sean Penn will score Oscar gold for his performance in the title role and everyone in Hollywood will opine on the importance of Harvey Milk as an activist for gay rights, while lamenting the tragedy of his death. And academy members will quietly vote for a different best picture. It’s like people lying on exit polls on election day. More importantly, I’m still annoyed with van Sant for his stupid and unwanted “shot-for-shot” remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho a decade ago. Anne Heche as Marion Crane? Puh. Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates?! Zzzz.... Whatever credibility he may have had as a filmmaker went out the window like an errant fart when van Sant decided to pursue that silly-ass idea.

For The Reader, academy voters will tell themselves that just getting the Best Picture nomination is honor enough. A film dealing with an illiterate former Nazi, even if portrayed by Kate Winslet, doesn’t have the gravitas of a Schindler’s List or The Piano. Baiting for an Oscar can backfire when the ploy seems so obvious. When academy members screen “The Reader,” for Best Picture consideration, you can bet they’ll turn the page.

Slumdog Millionaire, directed by the intensely humanistic Danny Boyle, plays more like a foreign art-house effort. Filmed on location in India, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, a street urchin who, against the odds, manages to land a spot as a contestant on a TV game show – and starts winning. It’s another triumph-of-the-human-spirit picture wowing audiences who apparently haven’t seen many triumph-of-the-human-spirit pictures. A nomination for Slumdog also allows the academy to acknowledge the importance of diversity without handing the top honor to a film that, at its heart, explores universal human feelings. In sum, they will consider the nomination good enough for this little indie film that's been kicked around the studios for nearly two years.

Just a glance at past Oscar winners shows the academy really has only one clear choice this year.
Benjamin Button has A-list stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett), a solid yet unusual storyline, and the immense talents of director Fincher, whose dark, misanthropic vision plays to maximum effect in films like Se7en, Fight Club and the hugely underrated Zodiac. Here, Fincher goes for pathos and flexes his directing muscles in new ways. Academy voters like that.

The film received 13 nominations this morning (surpassed or matched only by All About Eve 1950], Ben Hur [1959], Titanic [1997], and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King [2003]). Frequent collaborator Pitt got an Oscar nod for his work in the title role and the picture is up for a slew of technical awards, so it's already approaching critical mass. Bet on it: Benjamin Button will beam like a three-year-old on his birthday come Oscar night.

Every Best Picture nominee this year is also up for the Best Director award. That’s common. What’s uncommon is the year when a film wins Best Director but not Best Picture. So if Fincher makes an appearance on stage clutching an Oscar, start collecting on your bets, for Benjamin Button will have surely won the top prize.

Oh: that Batman movie everybody loved -- What was it called? The Dark Knight? -- picked up eight nominations, but only one in a major category: best supporting actor for the late Heath Ledger. The nom was an all but foregone conclusion. If Ledger wins, it will be the first posthumous Oscar to be presented since Peter Finch failed to show up for his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Network (1976). I doubt any of this will enhance Ledger’s career, although it will probably goose DVD sales of his movies.

Here’s the full list of nominees, with my predictions for the winners (in bold):

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” (Overture Films)
Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon” (Universal)
Sean Penn in “Milk” (Focus Features)
Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” (Fox Searchlight)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Josh Brolin in “Milk” (Focus Features)
Robert Downey Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” (DreamWorks, Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt” (Miramax)
Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.)
Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Angelina Jolie in “Changeling” (Universal)
Melissa Leo in “Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Meryl Streep in “Doubt” (Miramax)
Kate Winslet in “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Amy Adams in “Doubt” (Miramax)
Penélope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (The Weinstein Company)
Viola Davis in “Doubt” (Miramax)
Taraji P. Henson in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
Marisa Tomei in “The Wrestler” (Fox Searchlight)

Best animated feature film of the year
“Bolt” (Walt Disney), Chris Williams and Byron Howard
“Kung Fu Panda” (DreamWorks Animation, Distributed by Paramount), John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Andrew Stanton

Achievement in art direction
“Changeling” (Universal), Art Direction: James J. Murakami, Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Art Direction: Nathan Crowley, Set Decoration: Peter Lando
“The Duchess” (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films), Art Direction: Michael Carlin, Set Decoration: Rebecca Alleway
“Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage), Art Direction: Kristi Zea, Set Decoration: Debra Schutt

Achievement in cinematography
“Changeling” (Universal), Tom Stern
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Claudio Miranda
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Wally Pfister
“The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Chris Menges and Roger Deakins
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Anthony Dod Mantle

Achievement in costume design
“Australia” (20th Century Fox), Catherine Martin
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Jacqueline West
“The Duchess” (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films), Michael O’Connor
“Milk” (Focus Features), Danny Glicker
“Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage), Albert Wolsky

Achievement in directing:
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), David Fincher
“Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Ron Howard
“Milk” (Focus Features), Gus Van Sant
“The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Stephen Daldry
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Danny Boyle

Best documentary feature
“The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)” (Cinema Guild), A Pandinlao Films Production, Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
“Encounters at the End of the World” (THINKFilm and Image Entertainment), A Creative Differences Production, Werner Herzog and Henry Kaiser
“The Garden” A Black Valley Films Production, Scott Hamilton Kennedy
“Man on Wire” (Magnolia Pictures), A Wall to Wall Production, James Marsh and Simon Chinn
“Trouble the Water” (Zeitgeist Films), An Elsewhere Films Production, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Best documentary short subject
“The Conscience of Nhem En” A Farallon Films Production, Steven Okazaki
“The Final Inch” A Vermilion Films Production, Irene Taylor Brodsky and Tom Grant
“Smile Pinki” A Principe Production, Megan Mylan
“The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306” A Rock Paper Scissors Production, Adam Pertofsky and Margaret Hyde

Achievement in film editing
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Lee Smith
“Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Mike Hill and Dan Hanley
“Milk” (Focus Features), Elliot Graham
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Chris Dickens

Best foreign language film of the year
“The Baader Meinhof Complex” A Constantin Film Production, Germany
“The Class” (Sony Pictures Classics), A Haut et Court Production, France
“Departures” (Regent Releasing), A Departures Film Partners Production, Japan
“Revanche” (Janus Films), A Prisma Film/Fernseh Production, Austria
“Waltz with Bashir” (Sony Pictures Classics), A Bridgit Folman Film Gang Production, Israel

Achievement in makeup
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Greg Cannom
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O’Sullivan
“Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (Universal), Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Alexandre Desplat
“Defiance” (Paramount Vantage), James Newton Howard
“Milk” (Focus Features), Danny Elfman
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), A.R. Rahman
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Thomas Newman

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
“Down to Earth” from “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, Lyric by Peter Gabriel
“Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Music by A.R. Rahman, Lyric by Gulzar
“O Saya” from “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Music and Lyric by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam

Best motion picture of the year
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), A Kennedy/Marshall Production, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Ceán Chaffin, Producers
“Frost/Nixon” (Universal), A Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment and Working Title Production, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Eric Fellner, Producers
“Milk” (Focus Features), A Groundswell and Jinks/Cohen Company Production, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, Producers
“The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), A Mirage Enterprises and Neunte Babelsberg Film GmbH Production, Nominees to be determined
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), A Celador Films Production, Christian Colson, Producer.

Best animated short film
“La Maison en Petits Cubes” A Robot Communications Production, Kunio Kato
“Lavatory - Lovestory” A Melnitsa Animation Studio and CTB Film Company Production, Konstantin Bronzit
“Oktapodi” (Talantis Films), A Gobelins, L’école de l’image Production, Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand
“Presto” (Walt Disney), A Pixar Animation Studios Production, Doug Sweetland
“This Way Up” A Nexus Production, Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes

Best live action short film
“Auf der Strecke (On the Line)” (Hamburg Shortfilmagency), An Academy of Media Arts Cologne Production, Reto Caffi
“Manon on the Asphalt” (La Luna Productions), A La Luna Production, Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont
“New Boy” (Network Ireland Television), A Zanzibar Films Production, Steph Green and Tamara Anghie
“The Pig” An M & M Production, Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh
“Spielzeugland (Toyland)” A Mephisto Film Production, Jochen Alexander Freydank

Achievement in sound editing
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Richard King
“Iron Man” (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment), Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Tom Sayers
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood
“Wanted” (Universal), Wylie Stateman

Achievement in sound mixing
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt
“Wanted” (Universal), Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño and Petr Forejt

Achievement in visual effects
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron
“The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin
“Iron Man” (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment), John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick and Shane Mahan

Adapted screenplay
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Screenplay by Eric Roth, Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
“Doubt” (Miramax), Written by John Patrick Shanley
“Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Screenplay by Peter Morgan
“The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Screenplay by David Hare
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

Original screenplay
“Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Classics), Written by Courtney Hunt
“Happy-Go-Lucky” (Miramax), Written by Mike Leigh
“In Bruges” (Focus Features), Written by Martin McDonagh
“Milk” (Focus Features), Written by Dustin Lance Black
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Five Affecting Films

By Steve Evans

Friends shake their heads in bemusement when they discover I have devoted more than 25,000 hours (a conservative estimate) to watching films during my 40-year fascination with the cinema. For context, that works out to nearly three solid years, 24 hours a day, sitting in a darkened theater enjoying film. (I do go hiking and mountain biking once in a while. Fishing, too.)
After some reflection I realized that in all that time, absorbed in all those movies, there are really only five core films that have had a profound and lingering impact on my appreciation for the filmmaker’s art. Curiously, these are by no means my top favorite films, though they are exceptionally polished with at least one key scene that is positively breathtaking in its brilliance. Each has knocked me down with the scope of the director's vision, the mastery of technique on display in every frame. Two of the five are Best Picture winners. All of them represent a broad range of overlapping genres that run the gamut of human experience – love, death, family and marriage, hope and despair, jubilation and terror, hilarity and horror.

Cinematic Cteve sez check ‘em out:

City Lights (1931) By turns hilarious and poignant, this may be Chaplin's masterpiece in terms of the full development of the themes he explored in virtually all of his films: perseverance, pluck and determination, the transformative power of love. I cannot help but shed a tear at that closing shot...every...damn..time. A gentle masterpiece.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Call it sentimental Capra-corn, but this movie is actually much darker than most people remember. Small town corruption, gossip, alcoholism (Uncle Billy, Mr. Gower), financial ruination, thoughts of suicide -- heavy stuff that demands an upbeat ending to counterbalance all the preceding gloom. Donna Reed radiates love and sensuality. Jimmy Stewart begins to display the post-war maturity and a hint of the brooding obsessiveness that he would later present con gusto for Hitchcock in classics like Rear Window and Vertigo.

Jaws (1975) Unless you saw it during the summer of '75 on its original theatrical run, it can be hard to understand the flat-out terror this movie invoked in an audience. Steven Spielberg played us like a fiddle and we didn't mind the manipulation one whit. This movie works because the mechancial shark didn't: First time they put the prop in the water, it sank to the ocean floor. Second time, the hydraulic mechanism in the head exploded, the shark went belly-up, yep, and sank to the ocean floor (thus providing the inspiration for the crowd-pleasing climax). While the special effects department repaired the vulcanized villain, Spielberg made a sage decision borne on equal parts inspiration and necessity: he kept the clunky beast off screen for most of the film. He saved time and money, but more importantly he put our imagination to work in service of the plot. Hitchcock intuitively understood this and Spielberg learned from the master. It's all psychological, really. What we think we see is far more frightening than anything a director can actually show us. Verna Fields' Oscar-winning editing helped tremendously with fast cuts that presented tantalizing glimpses of the monster. And so, halfway through the picture, when the rubber fish successfully rears its head and scares the begeezus out of Roy Scheider (above), we are already sweating with fear. Need a bigger boat? Damn straight. But the biggest scare -- the scene that made me leap out of my seat -- comes much earlier in the film:

I will always remember Hooper's discovery of Ben Gardner's badly damaged boat and the surprise waiting just below the waterline. When the big boo came, three guys in the front row of the long gone University Theater in Charlottesville, VA, stood up and screamed: a bloodcurdling cry. The audience positively freaked. Summer movies – and Hollywood – would never be the same.

The Deer Hunter (1978) Forget the historical inaccuracies. Forget the fact that the wedding sequence runs damn near 45 minutes. Forget, for a moment, that the movie is set in Vietnam (this picture is less a war movie than it is a study in character). The scene that can still elicit a cold sweat and make me quake, of course, is the prison-camp horror. When Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken sit down to play Russian roulette as their tormentors gamble and laugh, we are witness to nothing less than a small masterpiece of live-wire tension, positively electrifying. I know of no one who has made it through that sequence and not been left shaken, pale and jolted by adrenaline pumping through the heart.

"Mau!" screams the Vietcong guard, his face twisted in a horrible rictus of hatred and evil. He slaps his captive hard across the face, forcing the prisoner to make an untenable choice. He does. De Niro's response explodes into 20 classic seconds of savage revenge and machismo, a cinematic catharsis still unmatched more than 30 years later. On the short list of De Niro's finest moments. Unforgettable.

The English Patient (1996) An illicit affair turns tragic in this remarkably mature, complex look at love, relationships and, above all, consequences. Only a jaded fool would not want to experience the intensity of emotion shared between Almásy and Katharine. Exquisitely photographed, acted and expertly directed, this may be the most intense, yet delicately layered love story the cinema has offered. Ralph Fiennes' primal scream of anguish haunts me to this day. Oh, and Juliet Binoche can prop her feet on my coffee table any time she pleases.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cinematic Rules for Helicopters

If an action movie features helicopters, at least one (and preferably all of them) should explode. This is one of the great pleasures of being a guy who loves movies: I can lay claim to a fondness for destruction – the louder and more chaotic, the better. And in expensive action flicks there's nothing better than a hellacious helicopter malfunction. There should be fire, twisted metal and a really big bang; in fact, several.

I did not drop coin on a powered subwoofer for my home theatre in order to luxuriate in the dainty percussion of Cirque du Soleil. I want to rattle windows, endanger eardrums, knock monkeys out of trees. Thor is a sissy; I am the god of thunder.

Great films with helicopter destruction, in no discernible order:

James Bond takes out a SPECTRE helicopter with spectacular results in From Russia with Love (1963). Sure, it’s a ripoff of the cropdusting sequence from North by Northwest (1959), but it’s a good ripoff. Goof Note: careful viewers of the original film and early home-video editions could see the revealing cable attached to an (offscreen) crane that lowers the exploding ‘copter more or less safely to the ground. But this was visible only on television and in the old VHS releases of the film. The safety cable used in the stunt has been digitally removed by some sly computer guy at MGM/UA for the subsequent DVD releases, of which there have been at least three (I have mixed feelings about digitally “fixing” such things decades after the fact; tends to spoil the charm). Note also the obvious stunt double for Sean Connery and the inferior rear-screen projection. No matter. It's still the best of the Bonds, 45 years on.

Apocalypse Now (1979). Fantastic helicopter explosion during the greatest sequence of choreographed mayhem in cinema history. Ultimate use of Wagner (and Robert Duvall), too. “Charlie Don’t Surf.”

Three Kings (1999) Desert Storm soldier Ice Cube throws a Hail Mary pass, lobbing a Nerf football rigged with C-4 into the windscreen of an Iraqi chopper. Mayhem ensues. This is also a terrific scene to test the sonic-boom capabilities of one’s subwoofer.

Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout (1992) pitches a fey assassin off the scaffolding at a football stadium and into the whirring blades of a helicopter rising from below; something you don't see every day. The helicopter does not explode. But the villain does: A satisfying demise for a particularly nasty bad guy. Crunch. Splat. Cool.

At the crazy climax of Darkman (1990), Liam Neeson goes for a wild ride dangling from a helicopter by a steel cable. Turning the tables on the bad guy, ol’ Liam lands on a tractor trailer and hooks the cable to the vehicle just as the driver enters a convenient tunnel, effectively dragging the chopper to an explosive finale.

Mission Impossible (1996) essentially copied this idea for the climax when Tom Cruise, riding atop the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, literally “high speed train”), tethers Jon Voight's helicopter to the train. The TGV barrels into the Chunnel, bound for Paris, dragging the helicopter inside for an improbable climax with a helicopter-cum-fireball, a flying Cruise and a squished Jon Voight. The plot is damn-near incomprehensible (featuring the work of at least four screenwriters, including Oscar-winner Robert Towne), and the climax defies half a dozen laws of physics. But that exploding 'copter cartwheeling through the Chunnel is super-cool.

Die Hard (1988) If this requires an explanation, then maybe you're reading the wrong blog. Yippie-ki-yay….

Live Free or Die Hard (2007) Yeah, it was PG-13, which is hardly in keeping with the spirit of a Die Hard film and, yes, it had some mighty silly set pieces. But that can’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of a ludicrous moment when our peeved hero John McClane (Willis, natch’) rigs an unmanned car to speed up the curved support beam of a tunnel, become airborne and collide mid-air with a helicopter loaded with bad guys toting automatic weapons. Ka-boom.

Such are guilty pleasures when the testosterone and beer are flowing freely.

Pass the popcorn.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Look Closer...

The self-induced plight of suburban sheeple came up recently in conversation with an old friend and turned, inevitably, to thoughts of mortality, of lives fulfilled and lives wasted, of the noble quest for meaning and purpose in this tired, old world. No good conversation would be complete without a double shot of scabrous satire and black comedy to leaven such solemn thoughts. This led naturally enough to the discovery of our mutual admiration for director Sam Mendes’ freshman effort, the disturbing yet darkly humorous American Beauty.

Hard to believe the picture is almost 10 years old, though its message is timeless.

So let’s roll back the clocks and look closer at the last Best Picture winner of the 20th Century.

American Beauty

Directed by Sam Mendes. Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Peter Gallagher and Chris Cooper. Screenplay by Alan Ball.

The pitch: A man hobbled by a mid-life crisis and a nightmarish family channels his depression into lust for a teen-age girl.

Yes, and there’s so much more. A jet-black satire of suburbia, this cautionary fable with a grim, inevitable climax features a stunning performance from Spacey, as the 42-year-old advertising man Lester Burnham who hates his job and shrewish wife (Bening). Seldom does a film spew such venom, or offer such a myopic and pessimistic worldview, only to shatter our expectations with a glimmer of hope and a genuine warning at the end. In terms of metaphor, as social commentary and, yes, as art, American Beauty was the most challenging film of 1999, prompting controversy and conversation. Nearly a decade on, the constant, symbolic use of the color red is enough to fuel many a late-night discussion, long after the credits roll. Look again at the now-iconic image of young Mena Suvari writhing on a bed of American Beauty rose petals.

In my original review of the film after its September 1999 opening, I predicted Oscar® nominations for Spacey and Bening, first-time film director Mendes, for the incredible script by television writer Alan Ball (Cybill) and certainly for the picture itself. (My forecast came true for all except Bening, who lost to Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry. Cruel fate revisited Bening five years later when she again lost to Swank; this time for Million Dollar Baby).

American Beauty Plot Synopsis:

Watching his daughter’s best friend Angela (Suvari) perform her cheerleading routines, Lester Burnham discovers a fire in his loins and a passion for life that has been missing for two decades. When he sees Angela strut, her arms snaking over her lithe body, it’s lust at first sight. But Lester also feels a renewed interest in life that has little to do with sex.

Don’t dismiss this as just another Lolita tale, although it bears more than passing resemblance to Nabokov’s most famous novel. American Beauty is that rare flower in American film – a major-studio (Dreamworks) production with A-list stars tackling material that many daredevil independents might hesitate to touch. The picture works the same territory as Todd Solondz’s repugnant film Happiness, except here the characters are treated with compassion and a degree of humanity in spite of their weaknesses.

As the film opens, we learn Lester is already dead. He narrates in flashback, a technique reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard. And it works. Discovering how Lester will die is critical to the suspense of the heartbreaking final reel. Lester explains his fall and ultimate redemption in the cynical-comical narration that punctuates key moments in the film. In fact, he says it all:

“In a year, I would be dead. In a way, I already was.”

His character is a loser whose career is stagnating in an office cubicle. His wife, a real-estate saleswoman, and their teen-age daughter (Birch) despise him for no reason other than he is socially awkward. Lester doesn’t even seem to like himself, though he masturbates in the shower before work and declares pathetically that it will be “the highlight of my day.”

His wife would rather tend to her blood-red roses, framing the white-picket fence around their well-appointed home. She is so obsessive-compulsive, so driven in her pursuit of perfection, that her pruning shears are color-coordinated with her clogs. She worries that Lester might spill a beer on her $4,000 sofa upholstered in Italian silk. Bening is mesmerizing in the role.

Lester’s daughter is embarrassed for him as he stumbles out the door, spilling the papers in his briefcase on the sidewalk.

The man knows something is missing from his life. When he meets the teen-age sexpot Angela, his brain begins to boil. He fantasizes encounters with the girl, reclining on a bed of rose petals. He quits his job, extorts $60,000 from his hateful boss and buys a 1971 fireapple-red muscle car. American Woman by the Guess Who blares on the stereo as he drives home. He wails along with the anthem, closing his eyes and nodding happily with nostalgia when that serpentine guitar solo kicks in (this film deals brilliantly in subtext).

Soon, he’s pumping iron in the garage, after he eavesdrops on Angela telling his daughter that her dad would be hot if he had a little more muscle tone.

At a business party, while his wife flirts with the local king of home sales (a slick, silver-haired Peter Gallagher), Lester sneaks out of the noxious gathering to smoke a joint in the alley with the waiter (Bentley), a strange kid who has just moved in to Lester’s neighborhood. He’s the creepy teenager next door.

The teenager has his own obsessions. He videotapes Lester’s daughter from his bedroom and slowly, shyly, begins an awkward romance with the troubled girl. He also sells high-quality pot and hides this enterprise from his abusive, homophobic ex-Marine father (Cooper). The boy has to provide urine samples to his brutal dad every six months, ever since he was busted for dealing. His mother has been so brow-beaten by her husband that she can only stare at the wall and make apologies for a house that is already spotless. Bentley portrays a brooding teen, biding his time for a chance to leave home. And although he professes to love all the beauty in the world, in his piercing stare we sometimes catch a glimpse of Columbine madness.

Director Mendes propels these miserable characters on a collision course, then casually introduces a gay couple who live down the street. Theirs is the only healthy and enduring relationship in the film (and is perhaps a pointed barb at mainstream America, as screenwriter Alan Ball is openly gay).

The gay couple’s chance encounter with Lester and later, with the baleful Cooper, triggers a series of comic misunderstandings between the core characters. The confusion escalates with frightening speed into violence and mind-numbing tragedy on a thunderous, rain-splattered night, punctuated by a mournful Annie Lennox on the soundtrack: “Old man lying by the side of the road /With the lorries rolling by / Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load / And the buildings scrape the sky…Don’t let it bring you down....”

Lester and his teen-age obsession, Angela, exchange unforgettable words that will leave even the most jaded viewer reeling. Lester’s closing monologue, indeed, his final words, will haunt us long after the lights come up and we are left to ponder -- as if his words were not enough -- that richly symbolic use of red. Is it the color of jealousy and hate? Perhaps the color of redemption?

Or is it the color of love?

Rated R for sexuality, nudity, familial violence, pervasive language and drug use.

Copyright © 1999-2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Vengeance is mine: The Virgin Spring

Today I contemplated, as I sometimes do, that unique paradox of the human condition: the thirst for revenge. Yes, that all-consuming desire to get even with those who wrong us, juxtaposed against the futility – perhaps the folly? – of seizing our own justice. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can acknowledge that at least once in our lives we harbored a need to strike back savagely against someone who had committed an unspeakable and incomprehensible act of cruelty against us. The desire to settle the score wraps itself around the spinal cord, creeps upward, and penetrates subconscious thought with all manner of delicious scenarios that result in the excruciating pain and suffering of the evil person who has caused us harm. Yes. And yet, how we answer that call for vengeance is a measure of character that only each individual can demonstrate through his reaction to those who trespass against him. Do we choose to forgive or do we fight to the death? It’s really one or the other. Philosophical method suggests there is no middle ground. And if we choose the satisfaction of blood, that ol’ Biblical eye for an eye, what then? What have we gained? Where is God when we so desperately need someone to adjudicate our sins before we make them worse?

This is the theme that Swedish director Ingmar Bergman explores in one of his greatest works, Jungfrukällan, known in this country as The Virgin Spring (1960). I offer a review of the stunning Criterion edition of this film, below. Ah, but please note: here be spoilers that reveal significant plot points.

“You saw it, God. You saw it. The innocent child's death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don't understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness.” ~ Töre (Max von Sydow)

Criterion presents a sumptuous edition of master director Ingmar Bergman's harrowing tale of revenge and redemption in 14th century Sweden. One of the most visually beautiful of all black-and-white films, The Virgin Spring won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960. The picture remains a powerful parable of good and evil, of faith lost and recovered. Adapted from a folk ballad, it is a study in contrasts, but not extremes. Set in a society struggling with the transition to Christianity from Norse paganism and a feudal economy, the film depicts savage violence that begets savage retribution. But there is also hope, and light and shadow, dappled in shades of gray both symbolic and literal, as with the stunning chiaroscuro cinematography—one of many quiet wonders in this rich, deeply moving cinematic experience that challenges, provokes and ultimately rewards the careful viewer.

A bit of plot:

Medieval Sweden. A devoutly Christian farming family begins their morning ritual with prayer. The family patriarch Töre (longtime Bergman collaborator Max Von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) intone their prayers before joining the servants for breakfast at the family table. Their pagan foster daughter Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom, The Seventh Seal), who is unwed and pregnant, despises the couple's biological daughter Karin. As played by Birgitta Pettersson, Karin is a spoiled and foolish girl who would rather spend all night at the village dance and sleep through the next morning, than join her hardworking family for breakfast.

Töre directs his wife to rouse Karin and get her ready for the long journey to the village church where Karin must deliver the family's votive candles. Religious custom dictates that only a virgin may offer candles to the Virgin Mary. Karin insists on wearing her finest embroidered dress. Ingeri accompanies her on the journey and they debate many aspects of life, although Karin is mostly frivolous in her thoughts. Disgusted with the naïve and vain girl, Ingeri lingers at a hermit's shack, leaving Karin to continue her journey alone on horseback. Later, Karin encounters two corrupt goatherds and their young brother wandering the woods with their flock. Frightened by their intense stares, she offers to share her simple lunch with the men, but their tone changes abruptly. Drooling over the young woman, licking their tongues over rotting black teeth, the men rape and murder her, then strip the valuable clothes from her body as a light snow falls silently on her corpse in the cold forest. Ingeri arrives on this obscene tableau. She grabs a rock to strike the attackers, but she is paralyzed; unable or unwilling to fight.

Now desperate for food and shelter, the goatherds make their way back along the path Karin had traveled. In a righteous twist of fate, the men arrive at the farm of Töre, seeking refuge from the cold. They are oblivious to their mistake. Later, when the herdsmen offer to sell a beautiful, embroidered dress to Karin's mother, the shock of realization creases the woman's pale face as she examines the garment made by her own hands. She knows her daughter is dead. Trembling, she confronts her husband with this discovery.

Swift and terrible retribution comes to the goat herders at dawn.

As Töre grieves the death of his only child—railing against the unknowable motives of God—his foster daughter Ingeri abandons her pagan beliefs, cleansing her spirit with a symbolic Baptism in the forest.

The plot description above, revealing though it may be, does not begin to cover the layers of symbolism and meaning with which Bergman constructed this disturbing film. By turns deeply religious and blasphemous, his characters whiplash across extreme emotional reactions brought on by unbearable trauma. Faith, compassion, and inner strength are as thematically critical to The Virgin Spring as human cruelty and revenge. But again: This is a film of jagged contrasts delivered with impeccable talent from all involved.

Bergman was reportedly influenced by director Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai) when filming Jungfrukällan (literally, The Virgin Spring in Swedish), especially in the long passages of silence where characters say more with their expressions than words could convey. He delivers an uncompromising presentation of psychological motives driving people to acts of which they would not have believed themselves capable.

The cinematography by famed director of photography Sven Nykvist is achingly beautiful, and by itself sufficient reason to watch and own this film. Scholars could conduct a seminar on lighting and cinematography technique using this film as text. A frequent Bergman collaborator (he also shot Persona, The Serpent's Egg, and Fanny and Alexander), during his long career Nykvist also framed exquisitely photographed films for Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors), whose own admiration for Bergman has been well documented.

Disc extras include a beautifully illustrated 28-page booklet of essays and notes on the making of the film and its cultural impact. The booklet includes the complete text of the 13th-century ballad on which the film is based. Special features also include an introduction by director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), a commentary track by a Bergman scholar, and an improved English subtitle translation (which is to be preferred over the optional English-dubbed audio track).

Video and audio are peerless.

Caveat lector: Despite far more graphic atrocities depicted in contemporary film, the rape and murder of young Karin still has the capacity to shock and devastate. It is a desolating, unforgettable moment that will lease permanent space in a viewer's mind. Töre's animalistic revenge for his daughter is less disturbing, but only by a matter of degrees.

This is a poignant and unflinching art film, shamelessly copied and degenerated 13 years later as the sleazy exploitation horror movie Last House on the Left, directed by Wes Craven. In a film that uses extreme contrast as a stylistic device, the distinctions between The Virgin Spring and Last House on the Left could not be more profound. The former is the work of a cinematic visionary conveying a message of hope, faith, and human frailty in the face of helplessness and rage. The latter is the work of cretins with cameras whose pornographic violence exists as an endurance test for people so jaded they feel nothing unless bludgeoned with cruelty for its own sake. It is mentioned here solely in the interest of a thorough review.

I continue to be impressed with the cineastes at the Criterion Collection. They are, quite simply, the best in the business, delivering time and again the absolute reference standard in important classic and contemporary films on DVD. This is a company that truly wields the power of the DVD format for presenting major cinema. Criterion always includes generous supplemental features that give insight and context into great works of art, of which The Virgin Spring is a pristine example. This disc comes highly recommended as an addition to any serious film collection. It is essential viewing.

An emotionally devastating experience, The Virgin Spring elicits a deep appreciation of life through its depiction of senseless death and the futility of revenge. Bergman, who died in July 2007, urges his audience to cherish the time we do have, even in the face of incomprehensible cruelty.

That sweet sentiment softens a harsh reminder of the fleeting hours ahead.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 9, 2009

"There's no place like home...."

During a 1.04.09 day trip to Washington, D.C., I captured this photo of the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz. The sequined, felt-lined slippers are on display on the second floor of the Smithsonian's newly reopened Museum of American History. Of the four pairs made for the film, these are the only slippers known to survive after more than 70 years. It is believed the pair of slippers on display were used specifically for dance sequences. Click the photo for a detailed close-up.

I also commend to your attention the definitive reference work on this enduringly sentimental film, The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz, who delivers a fascinating trip down the Yellow Brick Road. Copiously illustrated throughout, plus 8 pages of color plates.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Shutter Island: the most anticipated film of 2009?

Martin Scorsese returns to the central themes of his long and celebrated directorial career with the fall release of Shutter Island, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in his fourth collaboration with the master filmmaker. Madness, murder, revenge and redemption permeate this new project, based on an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling 2004 novel.

Briefly, Shutter Island follows the investigations of U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule as they search for a missing patient at Ashecliffe, a hospital for the criminally insane built on the eponymous island from the remnants of a Civil War hospital. The setting is pure gothic horror, while the psychiatrists who care for the deeply disturbed patients on Shutter Island depend on the relatively primitive methods available to them in 1954 – a decade before psychotropic drugs were widely used to treat mental illness, while surgery (think: frontal lobotomy) was the primary method of managing the maniacally deranged.

Daniels has been dispatched to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a savagely violent patient who had murdered her three children and presumably is hiding somewhere on the island, which is too far from the mainland for anyone to attempt a swimming escape. The mystery deepens as a hurricane bears down on the desolate island, blocking the ferry from returning to evacuate patients, staff and the federal marshals. Meanwhile, Daniels begins to suspect that the hospital physicians are involved with sinister experiments and it seems the U.S. marshal may have his own agenda.

Principal photography wrapped in June 2008, but the notoriously meticulous Scorsese typically takes a year to fine-tune his films with editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The film is set for wide US release on Oct. 2.

What a cast: DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels. The supporting cast features Mark Ruffalo as Teddy’s partner Chuck Aule, with Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow as the hospital's chief physicians, and the tremendous character actor Ted Levine (who played Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs), in a supporting role as warden of the mental hospital.

It’s easy to see why Scorsese would be attracted to this tale of madness, vengeance and the quest for redemption. These are the recurring themes in his greatest films, from The Departed, Gangs of New York, Casino, and Cape Fear, through Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Mean Streets – all revolve around the unholy trinity that has preoccupied Scorsese since his earliest days as a filmmaker.

I devoured Lehane’s gripping novel in a matter of hours and instantly saw the cinematic possibilities in my mind’s eye. On the downside, the plot twist may not come as much of a surprise to the careful reader; I saw it coming about 100 pages before Lehane probably intended for me to figure out his narrative destination. And so, the delicate structure Shutter Island, the novel, will only be compounded in Shutter Island, the film. Scorsese has given himself a massive challenge in tackling this material. If he is successful, audiences can count on the most startling surprise ending since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people a decade ago in The Sixth Sense. If not, the entire film will collapse on a tricky plot point as old as film itself.

If you want to savor the surprise, I implore you: do not read the novel or continue any further with this blog post.

Those who have already torn through Lehane’s compulsively readable book will no doubt wonder how Scorsese will be able to reflect the inner turmoil of the mind in cinematic terms. To that, I can only suggest another viewing of Taxi Driver (1976), which more than any film I have seen succeeds in conveying a man’s state of mind with minimal dialog or the hoary old trick of introducing a psychiatrist (as in Hitchcock’s Psycho) to explain everything and wrap the picture in a tidy little package.

The more I mull the plot in my mind (I keep thinking of a blend between The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the more difficult it becomes to contain my anticipation. October 2nd can’t get here soon enough.

If Scorsese succeeds in preserving the plot twist right up to the climactic reveal, then everything else that makes Shutter Island so satisfying will fall seamlessly into place. The result will be a blockbuster stamped with the artistic imprimatur of a true auteur. And another Academy Award could be forthcoming for this greatest of living directors.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.